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Ben Smith

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Games special for local coach

– So maybe you’re thinking this tonight, as you’re watching all that geography march past behind the flags of nations you didn’t know existed: What goes wrong next?

It has been no walk in the sun for the organizers of the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, where impending calamity has been a media theme in the run-up to this evening’s opening ceremonies. From barely finished facilities to contaminants in the water to a major star (Shaun White) walking out on the slopestyle event because he doesn’t believe the venue is safe, the normal quotient of joy is missing, somehow.

Well. At least one person doesn’t see it that way.

Her name is Alena Lukin, and if perspective is a resource sorely lacking around the Sochi Games right now, she is uniquely qualified to provide it. And if you’re settling in to watch some figure skating in the next two weeks – and you will, because figure skating is the centerpiece of the Winter Games – she is more than uniquely qualified.

Lukin is the skating director for Canlan Ice Sports at the Lutheran Health SportsCenter, but before she was that, she was a figure skater. From Minsk, in what is now Belarus. When she was 10 years old, she was summoned to Moscow to train as part of the national team of the now-vanished Soviet Union. By the time she was 12, she was skating internationally.

So she’ll see these Games through a different set of eyes from anyone else, in more ways than one.

“Ever been to Sochi?” she was asked this week.

“Yes, a long, long time ago,” she says. “We actually had off-ice training there for the USSR national team.”

Sochi was then and remains a summer resort town on the Black Sea, surrounded by the snow-capped Caucasus mountains. And the Olympics was then, and is now, a different animal than any other competition, because international competition in general is different.

“If you have international experience competing, you know the requirements of international officials and the international panel are much tougher,” says Lukin, who immigrated to the U.S. in 2001 after winning a green-card lottery. “They’re looking for minor details. Those minor mistakes you don’t really see on the TV if you don’t know much about the sport could affect the entire score, because you haven’t been able to achieve the requirement for a certain element.

“You can see if you fall down, it’s obviously a mistake. You can see if you step out, obviously everybody notices that kind of a mistake. But when you’re watching as a competitive skater yourself, you’re noticing everything behind the scenes.”

For Lukin, all of that will be especially riveting when it’s a Russian skater out there. Ever the skating coach, her interest is less about the Games’ location than it is about how that location will affect the skaters from her homeland.

“Obviously, it’s way harder to skate at home,” Lukin says. “You have to have tons of experience behind your back in order to get through that pressure. You could be 100 percent ready to compete, but in the Olympics it’s all about how well you handle this pressure. That plays a major part.

“A lot of great champions, three- or four-time world champions, never became Olympic champions because they had a hard time controlling or getting through that pressure. Obviously for the Russians it’s way more pressure than for any others.”

And for her?

No pressure. Just pleasure.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.